From John’s Gospel:
Each of them went home while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 7:53-8:11 (NRSV) – December 12, 2012.)
There is one ancient manuscript that adds that what Jesus wrote in the sand was “the sins of each of them,” but no others. Most scholars generally hold that we really don’t know what Jesus wrote. I think one of the more fascinating ideas is that Jesus was writing the names of those who were judging the woman.
If that is the case, Jesus’ doing so is another of his “prophetic actions” – deeds done as illustrations of a prophetic point. The probable reference is to Jeremiah 17:13. The NRSV translation of that verse is “O hope of Israel! O Lord! All who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be recorded in the underworld, for they have forsaken the fountain of living water, the Lord.” An alternative rendering from the King James version is “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed , and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters.” The Hebrew word translated in the first as “the underworld” and in the second as “the earth” is ‘erets, which can also be translated as “the ground.” Is Jesus, by writing their names in the ground immediately after calling for “anyone without sin” to cast the first stone, referring to Jeremiah’s warning?
It is only by happenstance that our Jewish friends are celebrating Chanukah this week. Among the many tradition of Chanukah is to greet one another, especially on the last of the eight days of the celebration, with the same greeting used at Yom Kippur: “May your name be written in the book of life.” The contrast between names of the forsaken written in the ground and names of the righteous written in the book of life underscores the Second Coming anticipation of Advent.
The book of life is not only a Jewish image. It is also seen in the Savior’s Second Coming as revealed to John of Patmos who saw “a new heaven and a new earth” and saw “the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev. 21:1-2) The gates of that city, John saw, “will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21:25-27)
Advent is a time of reflection, a time to prepare, a time to make sure our names are not written on the ground but rather in the book of life, to focus on our own worthiness and not on the sins of others.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.